MOSCOW — Russian authorities, showing no signs of declaring a truce with critics at home or abroad, took a swipe at both Tuesday by ruling that no crime was committed in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer whose treatment prompted the U.S. Congress to impose sanctions on corrupt officials here.
The finding by the country’s top investigative body contradicted those of a Russian presidential commission, which concluded that Magnitsky was abused and denied medical treatment before his death, and a private investigation by his Western employer, which found evidence he had been tortured.
“He was beaten,” Valery Borshchev, a member of the presidential commission, told the Interfax news agency Tuesday. “There is a death certificate stating that he had sustained a closed head injury.”
Borshchev said he would demand a new investigation. “This defiant act threatens basic and fundamental human rights in Russia,” he said.
Human rights and other nongovernmental organizations have been uneasily waiting to find out how they will fare in this environment. A law requiring groups that receive funds from abroad to register as foreign agents went into effect in November. Last month, President Vladimir Putin reminded the authorities that it should be enforced, according to news reports.
Most nongovernmental organizations refused to register, and in recent days, organizations around Russia have reported that local prosecutors are beginning to scrutinize records to determine compliance. In Moscow, prosecutors are reviewing the Moscow School of Political Studies, set up in 1992 with help from the Council of Europe, the Kommersant newspaper reported. The school says it offers training in leadership and civil action.
The Magnitsky case provides a barometer of the official mood. Magnitsky, who died in 2009 at age 37, will go on trial posthumously Friday, accused of a $230 million tax fraud. He had been jailed after he uncovered theft and blew the whistle on corrupt police and tax officers, who arrested him in response.
“Sadly but predictably Russian officials are more interested in prosecuting a dead man than in holding accountable those responsible for his arrest, torture, and death,” David Kramer, president of Freedom House, a U.S. organization that promotes democracy, said in an e-mail Tuesday.
The case has become inextricably bound up with the issue of American adoptions, which Russia banned in December shortly after Congress passed the Magnitsky Act. Tuesday’s ruling came hours after Texas authorities cleared of fault the adoptive parents of a Russian toddler who died in January.
Russian officials have been vociferously demanding punishment of the parents, Alan and Laura Shatto. Konstantin Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, said the decision was typical of what he called the leniency with which Americans have been treated when they have been accused of harming Russian children. “Moreover, they are trying to persuade us that it is the child who has inflicted fatal injuries to himself,” he said.